I hear you – all of you. Baulking at the thousand-dollar-plus price tag. Scoffing at the lack of bundled lightning-to-3.5mm dongle. Cackling away at #chargegate and #beautygate. Android race, master race. I hear all of you.
I, a life-long Android user (with some exceptions), think I’ve finally wrapped my mind around this quandary of a device. It does so much, yet so little. Costs so much, yet gives so little. Is there a cult of Apple? Why are people are snagging these (really expensive) things off the shelves like hot cakes? We Android folk love to scoff, but for once, I think I finally understand.
It’s an iPhone, so naturally, we start with its price. It’s crazy how a 512GB Samsung Galaxy Note 9 can still be had for a cheaper price than a 64GB iPhone. You could even save a couple hundred dollars for the 128GB version, and you’d still enjoy more onboard storage to boot.
Pit that against the Mate 20 Pro, which costs a touch less, or the Pixel 3 XL, which brings the stock Android experience all Android Apologists scream about, too.
So here we are, with the iPhone Xs Max in deficit.
We probably should have started with the physical form and build. After all, smartphones are something we’re going to carry on our being and interact with most of the time.
Physically, there’s not much different here on the Xs Max compared to the 5.8-inch iPhone X, except for its actual size – a bit bigger at 6.5 inches. The Xs phones are here to finish what the X started. And these aren’t few: we’ve still got a true edge-to-edge display that maximises the display in your palm, even at the bottom where Android phones can’t seem to figure how to get rid of the chin.
Granted, the iconic notch is also still there, but it’s still pretty unobtrusive. The Max actually does a better job at balancing out the notch than the non-Max versions, but it’s personal preference at this point.
We do have a glass-metal sandwich that has been quite ubiquitous now since manufacturers were pressed to improve wireless capabilities like NFC and wireless charging that were blocked with metal bodies. But here’s where I think the distinctions come in. While most other smartphones use mystery metal in their frames, the iPhone’s stainless steel shines. Literally. There’s a great feel in the hand, and I don’t think it’s imaginary. The added heft, along with the seamless transition between glass panels and steel frame, are major contributors to the premium feel of this device.
Now, steel alone isn’t enough to make the iPhone cost more than S$600 more than its closest competitor.
The also the OLED display, which returns on the iPhone Xs phones after its iOS debut on the iPhone X. But yes, indeed – we’ve had OLED displays on non-iOS displays for years now – even Nokia had an N-series phone with an OLED display in 2008! Here’s where things don’t look good for the iPhone Xs Max yet again. The Galaxy Note 9 has a 6.4-inch 1440x2960p OLED display with a pixel density of 516ppi, as compared to the 458ppi on the 2688x1242p iPhone Xs Max. They’ve both got support for HDR10 and Dolby vision, which is great for entertainment consumption.
To make up for it, the iPhone does squeeze the display into a slightly more compact form, that arguably is better designed. For a device that’s constantly in your hand, not carrying anything superfluous is a huge benefit.
Under the display, there’s also 3D touch, which lets you interact with elements by using more force with touch inputs. This feature does depend greatly on user habits, but I found it to come in handy, especially in two specific scenarios. The first is the pull-down Control Centre, accessible by swiping down from the right of the top edge. Force touch gives added functionality like quick access to screen settings like brightness, True Tone display and Night Shift, different levels of brightness for the torch function (helpful when trying not to blind others), and even a one-touch quick timer function!
The other is when typing with the on-screen keyboard. Where the instinct is to long-press the text field to correct mistakes or to insert text, users are actually able to hard-press anywhere on the keyboard to move the caret quickly and accurately across the screen.
What I’m trying to get at, is that the iPhone Xs Max, the pinnacle of iOS and Apple’s mobile ecosystem, really is more about the experience and the feel.
Of course, before I talk about the user experience, there are plenty of things that the iPhone Xs Max just can’t do. There’s no 3.5mm jack, no dual SIM. Experience-wise, there are plenty of frustrating
things quirks like not being able to share images directly to certain applications. I was unable to export images from a chat to Snapseed for editing, nor to Instagram Stories for sharing. Getting around these issues involved tedious manoeuvres like opening the image directly from the app.
Now resolved, #chargegate had initially affected my iPhone, which rendered it unable to receive a charge if not woken up before plugging in the charger. Apple’s quick response within a matter of days is a testament to the standards it holds itself to by charging such a premium dollar for the device. Other strange issues did crop up. I was unable to get Screen Time data for a couple of days and was also unable to use the search bar in the settings menu to quickly execute tweaks. Like #chargegate, these were all fixed within a week, quietly and in as Apple-like a manner as ever.
Feel-wise, we’ve got to start with Face ID. Android phones, like the Huawei Mate 20 Pro, have an on-screen fingerprint sensor and a Face ID-type facial recognition system are are purported to be as secure, more versatile and faster when it comes to unlocking the device. While we can’t make any conclusive statements about the efficacy of the facial recognition systems, unlocking the iPhone is decisively more experiential.
You see, we pick up our phones more often to check our notifications, instead of actually unlocking the phone. Coming over from Android required a bit of a paradigm shift, but everything was pretty well-thought out. The IR flood illuminator that works in conjunction with the TrueDepth front-facing camera to give 3D information actually pulses very rapidly when the phone is lifted. This means a higher scanning rate when checking for, amongst many things, eye contact. Lifting my phone to have the notifications unravel themselves upon making eye contact is nothing short of magical.
Speaking of cameras, Apple raved about its cameras at launch, speaking at length about bokeh quality and computational photography. As good as the photographic output on the iPhone Xs Max is, the issue is that the competition is really good, as well. In a blind test with more than 50 participants, votes were constantly cast in the direction of the iPhone’s Android counterparts like the Pixel 3 XL and the Note 9, despite similar framing and composition. However, there was a trend: the iPhone seemed to top the comparisons when HDR was required, while portraits remained its strong suit.
Next, we come to the applications, file and photo management system, which actually is more of an iOS evaluation.
There’s no way to arrange icons such that they “float”, which meant I pad the top of my home screen with the less-used icons in order to better reach the more useful ones below. File management was also a bit of a headache – you are unable to create new folders in Files in order to organise documents and other files, something I consider to be an absolute necessity for a power user.
I got around it by using Google Drive, but I suppose there’s some way to justify this painful lack of control over file organisation: not everyone is a power user. So, instead of the painful file organisation structure on Android, iOS lumps all your PDFs and documents in the iBooks app. Photos go to … well, Photos, as do Music and Videos. My educated guess is that it prevents messy file structures by keeping everything intuitive and accessible from the home page. To each their own, I guess.
But you’re not paying for the design, the functionality and the performance. Apple knows too well that the utility of their devices lies in a well-implemented ecosystem of devices that ensures continuity and consistency across different use cases. Everything, from the HomePod to the AirPods, from the App Store to Siri, shares a consistent visual language and user interface. That also means you pay extra for your applications, something Android users are quick to point out.
Coming from a year packed with Android smartphone releases, picking up the iPhone Xs Max was a big sigh of relief. There wasn’t the mad tedium of putting icons in exactly the same positions, no worry about file management, no concern about the ugly, bulky skins manufacturers have been slapping on top of Android, and better yet: beautiful bundled applications that (mostly) are useful.
Handover works brilliantly: half-completed documents on Pages can be continued on the way out of the house with the mobile app, and surfing the web on the iPhone transitions immediately to my Mac Pro right when it boots.
The iPhone Xs Max is artful at what it does best- providing a top-tier, large-screen user experience in a premium-feeling, well-designed form. For Apple users used to smaller screens, the Xs Max brings everything to the next level with minimal wasted space. Android users, sick of convoluted interfaces, bulky bloatware and seeking some level of simplicity might be tempted to switch over, especially if they’re used to a large screen.
In any case, the iPhone Xs Max retails in Singapore at SGD 1,799 for the baseline 64GB model. The 256GB variant comes in at SGD 2,039, while the fully-specced 512GB version will cost you SGD 2,349.